Going to see “Spankhouse” at the Jack Studio Theatre, Brockley I wasn’t sure what I was letting myself in for. My first thought was that maybe this was going to be a play about the life of Cynthia Payne (check Wikipedia if you’re not sure who she was) but I couldn’t have been more wrong. As the excellently produced spoof Financial Times programme informed me, a “Spank House” is a nickname for a financial scam that operates outside of the UK.
Created and performed by Jake Costello, this one-man, semi-biographical show, starts with the statement that we might not like him. And he was right. Jake is not a likeable guy in the traditional sense. At an early age he learnt the positive effects of lying, and from then on there was no stopping him. After University (taking the easiest degree for the worst reasons) he moved to Spain, not for the traditional summer job of handing out leaflets enticing tourists into dodgy bars, but to teach English using methods that I’m pretty sure were not OFSTED approved. And then, he was ‘discovered’ and moved into the world of financial scams.
As we go through his story, Jake introduces us to his friends/colleagues/rivals using a combination of voices and mannerisms that really brought these people to life – especially the truly repulsive Jeff – and had conversations with them that were totally believable as he teaches the audience about the workings of the “boiler room” scam. We learn much about the way the operation and scammers worked and their attitudes to life – “work hard, play hard” seemed to be the order of the day. However, we don’t really see anything of the people that ran it all. All the way through the narrative, there was an undercurrent of hidden malignant power over everything. This was personified by the enigmatic owner of the company Jake worked for, and comments made about having to pay some men in Barcelona on a regular basis. The one time this veil of secrecy was partially removed was genuinely shocking and made me glad that I didn’t know more.
Looking at Jake himself, I was really interested in trying to understand his motivation for what he did. Was it just the money? Apart from one early moment, there was never any mention of family, but you had the feeling he was more sensible with his money than some of his contemporaries, so maybe he had a long term plan. By the end I still wasn’t sure what attracted him to the life of a scammer. What I did know was that, yes he wasn’t that likeable but he is actually not a bad guy.
What did amaze me as I listened to and watched Jake’s highly energetic performance, which utilised genuine phone scripts used in the scams, was that so many people were able to be robbed of their money. And yet, should I have been surprised really? When you look at the Wall Street Crash, or the banking crises in 2008, they were both brought about by members of the public being sold things they couldn’t afford by ‘professionals’ in stripey shirts and ties. The difference is that Jake and his team were actually honest about their villainy and were punished for it.
This is an amazing show. Jake’s script plays with the audience’s emotions, using language that is often crude but completely appropriate for the time and story, to raise a laugh and then change the atmosphere to bring about a palpable tension. The set is so right for the story and is used, along with the lighting and back projection, to great effect, really helping to make everything believable.
However, there is a problem with the show. Jake is a criminal and a liar, his words, so the issue for the audience is to look at what they’ve seen and decide how much and what is the unvarnished truth. A conundrum I can see being a major talking point in the bar afterwards dividing groups and making it well worth seeing again
Review by Terry Eastham
The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
Dates: Tuesday 9th to Saturday 13th September 2014
Performances Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm
Running Time: 65 minutes (no interval)
Tickets: £10, £8 concessions. (Suitable for 18+)